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Vanderbilt LifeFlight partners with Retrieving Independence to train service dogs in simulated medical settings

Dec. 20, 2023, 2:11 PM

Service dogs Kai, left, and Mia were trained at VUMC recently to gain exposure to medical equipment and staff like those they will encounter after completing training. (photo by Donn Jones)
Service dogs Kai, left, and Mia were trained at VUMC recently to gain exposure to medical equipment and staff like those they will encounter after completing training. (photo by Donn Jones)

by Matt Batcheldor

Vanderbilt LifeFlight is partnering with the local nonprofit Retrieving Independence (RI) to assist in the training of service dogs in simulated medical settings, the latest of several Vanderbilt University Medical Center partnerships that bring specially trained dogs to Medical Center facilities.

RI breeds, trains and places service dogs with people who are living with a physical, mental or emotional disability. The new partnership allows RI puppies to visit LifeFlight staff simulation events to gain exposure to medical equipment and staff like those they will encounter after completing training and being paired with an individual with medical needs.

VUMC’s Tiffany Wright, SLP, left, and Retrieving Independence’s Michaela Ping, work with Kai and Mia inside a Vanderbilt LifeFlight ground ambulance. (photo by Donn Jones)
VUMC’s Tiffany Wright, SLP, left, and Retrieving Independence’s Michaela Ping, work with Kai and Mia inside a Vanderbilt LifeFlight ground ambulance. (photo by Donn Jones)

Two Labrador retrievers, Mia and Kai, were the first puppies to take part in one of LifeFlight’s quarterly medical simulations, held Dec. 5 at the Vanderbilt LifeFlight Training Center in Nashville. During the pilot project, puppies observed LifeFlight medical teams performing simulations with plastic mannequins. The dogs became acquainted with medical alarms and the inside of a LifeFlight ground ambulance, where they experienced lying on a gurney.

LifeFlight’s drills included Labor & Delivery, NICU and other scenarios, with equipment such as ventilators and cardiac monitors, said flight nurse Samantha Smith, RN. Because service dogs in training are not allowed in the hospital, the simulation provides an opportunity for them to adapt to such scenarios.

“Retrieving Independence’s mission is to use the power of the human-animal bond to transform lives,” said Lauren Dougall, chief executive officer of RI. The lives transformed include not just the recipients of the dogs, but the trainers, which include both inmates in Tennessee Department of Corrections facilities and community volunteers.

Each of RI’s service dogs are trained in their first two years of life to meet the specific needs of the person they will be placed with. Those needs include dogs that offer mobility assistance, those that detect certain conditions like diabetes and seizures, and dogs that help with psychological needs such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, it’s a combination.

The dogs spend three weeks per month in training with inmates, then spend a week with community volunteers outside of correctional facilities for real-world experience before returning to their inmate trainers, and the cycle repeats for the duration of training, which takes about 24 months.

Dougall talked about the benefits of the RI-VUMC partnership. “For us, it’s being able to provide an institution like Vanderbilt with therapeutic support and education,” she said. For RI, it’s “enriching the training process of our own dogs.”

During a break in the training, LifeFlight personnel could interact with the dogs and relieve a little stress. “I have never met a person who doesn’t love to pet a dog and it doesn’t instantly make them feel better,” Smith said. “By helping them, they’re helping us.”

Tiffany Wright, SLP, a speech-language pathologist at Vanderbilt and a volunteer at RI since 2020, helped bring the two organizations together. She said she got involved with RI during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it helped her family through it. She brought RI to the attention of nursing leadership, and a partnership evolved from there.

“It is very rewarding to know that I am able to assist these future service dogs in acclimating them to medical equipment, sounds of medical facilities and medical professionals that may be needed for their recipient in the future,” Wright said.

Angela Purinton, CAVS, program manager for Volunteer Services at VUMC, said in addition to the RI partnership, VUMC’s Pet Visitation Program brings in registered therapy dogs to visit staff and patients through ongoing partnerships with Intermountain Therapy Animals (the local chapter is TherapyARC) and Pet Partners (the local chapter is Music City Pet Partners.) LifeFlight has a partnership with Volunteer Services to bring the therapy dogs to visit LifeFlight facilities.

Purinton recalled the volunteer pet therapy team visiting VUMC staff during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and watching the positive reaction of staff.

“I saw firsthand how the staff reacted in those moments, and I even have chills talking about it now,” Purinton said. “It demonstrated the value of engaging staff with pet therapy under extraordinary circumstances.”

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